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“Names are Powerful”

names are powerful - family treeIf you’re heading back to school this month, and particularly if you teach elementary school, check out the article Fostering Culturally Relevant Literacy Instruction: Lessons from a Native Hawaiian Classroom by Katherine Wurdeman -Thurston and Julie Kaomea in the July issue of Language Arts.

The article describes a series of lessons in Mrs. Akaka’s second grade classroom. The lessons begin with students researching the stories of their own names and grow into the creation of a visual family tree. That family tree is shared orally and students recount the histories behind many names as a way to preserve tradition and celebrate their own literate identities. The following excerpts give you a glimpse into what one can learn from the article. It’s well worth a full read.

“Mrs. Akaka’s lesson in one’s name and its meaning was the first in a series of lessons aimed at helping her students make critical connections between their home and school lives, as well as their home and school literacies. In a subsequent lesson, Mrs. Akaka emphasizes that the mo’olelo (story or history) behind one’s name is as important as the name itself and that students should learn these and other family mo’olelo so that this historical knowledge can be passed down…

Names are powerful because words are powerful. A familiar ‘o¯lelo no’eau, or wise saying, reads, “I ka ‘o¯lelo no ke ola, i ka ‘o¯lelo no ka make” (In the word is life, in the word is death) (Pukui, 1983, p. 129). Hawaiians traditionally believed that words can bring life or death to a situation. Consequently, poets, songwriters, and orators who were skilled in the use of words would carefully select the appropriate words for a particular occasion with the understanding that carelessness in the choice of words might result in death for the composer or the person for whom the composition was intended (Pukui, 1949). The use of oration with just the right words was a traditional Hawaiian art form and a way to carry historical knowledge, information about names, and one’s genealogy from one generation to the next…

In sharing these mo’olelo of culturally based Hawaiian literacy lessons in Mrs. Akaka’s second grade classroom, we aim to inspire other educators of culturally and linguistically diverse students to identify, acknowledge, and ultimately build upon the cultural and literary strengths that exist in their students’ families and communities. Our hope is that by working together in our respective communities, we can begin to reignite within our children a fervor for literacy similar to that which was once so prevalent in our proud aupuni palapala…

“Everyone has a family history to share. A genealogical study of family histories can help teach students who they are and connect them to a heritage and identity that has been handed down across generations. As students trace their family’s genealogy and their journeys, and begin to see where their families came from, they can begin to understand and appreciate the unique contributions that every culture brings to a community


“[I]n acknowledging the funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) that are rooted in our students’ families, cultures, and communities, and by encouraging our students to bring this knowledge into the classroom, we are simultaneously acknowledging that we, as teachers, are not the sole authorities of knowledge. As Paulo Freire (1993) suggests, in traditional models of literacy education, teachers are the holders of knowledge, which they transmit to their students. As Mrs. Akaka shows us, however, teachers who are truly committed to culturally relevant and empowering literacy education need to be willing to give up this authority and acknowledge, even celebrate, the fact that there will be times when their students (like the young orators in Mrs. Akaka’s class) are the ones with ‘all the knowledge.’


Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pukui, M. (1949). Songs (meles) of old Ka’u, Hawai’i. Journal of American Folklore, 62, 247–258.
Pukui, M. (1983). ‘O¯lelo no’eau. Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press.